Donald Trump may be a screen star turned Republican politician, but that doesn’t make him the second coming of Ronald Reagan. If anything, he’s this generation’s Barry Goldwater or Wendell Willkie (the Republican businessman with no previous elective experience who FDR pummeled in the 1940 election).
Reagan shared Trump’s celebrity and showbiz chops, but by 1980, he had also evolved into a mainstay in Republican politics. While he had once extolled the virtues of the New Deal, Reagan converted to the GOP and conservatism during the course of the 1950s and early 1960s.
By the time he burst onto the political scene in 1964, Reagan did so by electrifying conservatives with his famous televised speech, A Time for Choosing. In the address, Reagan presented his case for Goldwater conservatism, and in the eyes of many, he did so more effectively than Goldwater himself. In 1966, Reagan conquered his establishment Republican skeptics for the first time, crushing former San Francisco Mayor George Christopher in the California Republican gubernatorial primary. In the general election, Reagan vanquished Governor Pat Brown, launching his career in elective office.
While in office, Reagan pioneered a style that would serve him well throughout his years in politics—he governed pragmatically, cutting deals with Democrats when necessary, while throwing rhetorical red meat to his conservative base. He first flirted with the presidency in 1968, but the Republican nomination went to Richard Nixon, postponing Reagan’s presidential dreams until after he had completed two full terms as governor.
Beginning in 1975, Reagan delivered 1,027 radio political commentaries, which helped to build his profile as a national political figure. In 1976, Reagan fractured his party, coming within an eyelash of upending President Gerald Ford in the Republican primary. His masterful speech at the end of the Republican Convention left many in attendance and watching on TV with buyer’s remorse.
In 1980, Reagan had the backing of the increasingly organized conservative movement, which provided infrastructure, manpower, enthusiasm and money to propel Reagan’s bid forward. Conservatives had learned from Goldwater’s crushing defeat in 1964, and built a robust movement that included new think tanks and business groups, a direct mail fundraising apparatus, and the newly minted Moral Majority, which aimed to organize religious conservatives behind likeminded candidates.
Additionally, by 1980, many issues that had splintered the GOP and animated liberal and moderate Republicans had faded from prominence or transformed in ways that lent themselves to more conservative positions. Concurrently, many ideas trumpeted by Goldwater in 1964 and by conservative activists like Phyllis Schlafly had moved into the mainstream of Republican thought.
As a result, conservatives reigned ascendant in the Republican coalition, poised to nominate one of their own. The influence of their enemies, the Rockefeller Republicans, had eroded. In a sign of the changing power dynamics within the GOP, President Ford removed the liberals’ patron saint, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, from the 1976 Republican ticket in an effort to appease conservatives and repel Reagan’s challenge.
While many in the Republican establishment questioned Reagan’s viability as a presidential contender heading into 1980, he nonetheless entered the race as the strong favorite. A March 1978 NBC News/Associated Press poll, for example, found that 43% of Republicans preferred Reagan for the 1980 nomination, while 35% favored former President Ford. Similarly, a CBS/New York Times poll from November of 1979, after Ford decided not to run, showed Reagan leading former Treasury Secretary and Texas Governor John Connally by a margin of 37% to 15%, with 15% of respondents having no opinion. In the fall of 1979, Reagan exuded such confidence in his frontrunner status that he refused offers to debate his primary opponents.
Although Trump shares Reagan’s charisma and understanding of what scholar Kathryn Cramer Brownell has dubbed “Showbiz Politics,” he lacks Reagan’s history of electoral success and his governing record. Instead, Trump’s political history consists primarily of donating to candidates in both parties, tweeting opinions, and stirring the pot on talk radio and cable television shows. While he undoubtedly excites disgruntled voters who have long yearned for a populist conservative champion, it will be far harder to reassure skeptics in the way that Reagan did during the 1980 general election campaign without a record of political and governing achievement.
Republicans could more easily coalesce around Reagan in 1980 because he had demonstrated the ability to govern without disaster, and possessed an extensive history of political involvement, including campaigning for candidate spanning the GOP’s ideological spectrum, and a professionally run campaign. Additionally, while Reagan had a substantial policy record and comprehensive policy positions, Trump has only vaguely outlined stances on many issues. Famously, Reagan won over many voters by appearing sane and reasonable during his lone debate showdown with President Carter, which occurred one week before the election.
Four mid to late October polls conducted before the debate split with two showing Carter leading (by 1 and 3 points respectively) and two finding Reagan in the lead (by 3 and 6 points respectively). On election night, however, Reagan clobbered Carter by nearly 10 points (50.75 to 41%).
While Reagan’s rhetoric perturbed or downright scared many voters, his governing record indicated that he possessed the basic competency to shepherd the country without disaster. For those looking for a reason to get to yes, Reagan offered traits and experience that Trump simply lacks.
Trump also doesn’t have a coherent, organized movement behind him in the way that Reagan did. Reagan’s triumphant 1980 win was sixteen years in the making (dating back to Goldwater’s loss in 1964). While the angst driving Trump’s support has deep historical roots, it has not been coherently channeled into a movement that would lay the groundwork for a victorious presidential campaign.
If anything, his bid—like Goldwater’s—looks poised to be a resounding failure, and perhaps also the precursor of a populist conservative movement that could eventually lift one of its own to the White House.